On The Border
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Author: Lizzie Thynne
Format: Experimental biography
Duration: 56′ 42″
Published: March 2013
On the Border is an experimental biography which explores the staging of memory through a family history. It is concerned with what Susannah Radstone describes as the ‘dialogic making of both the biographer and her subject’ (2006: 384) as implied in the term ‘auto/biography’. The overlapping of identities is intensified in this case, where I, as a daughter, reflect on my mother’s life, especially since the relation of mother to daughter was shadowed by mental illness. The aim of the film was then, partly, to discover a creative means to evoke the inter-subjectivity of all biography as it is thrown into relief by this particular story.
Another key aim of the film was to explore not only the ways in which subjects are formed in relation to each other, but also to a wider history and to evoke these relationships associatively rather than through more linear forms of exposition. I was concerned to look at how my Finnish family’s individual memories of the war with Russia in particular might be inflected by the influence of the Cold War repression of memories of that conflict in the interests of maintaining peace with the USSR. I also wished to evoke the lingering and indirect impact of war across time and generation on memory and identity.
The title On the Border invokes several things: the ways in which boundaries are both blurred and inscribed between family members, generations and siblings; the disputed and shifting border between Finland and the USSR; the borderline between conscious and unconscious, ‘sanity’ and ‘madness’, ‘real’ and ‘imagined’. The film was prompted by my mother, Lea’s, final forced admission to a psychiatric ward and then a care home in 2007. I decided to embark on it not only as an intellectual project but also as an attempt to confront the end of life. Both death and the lead-up to it remain topics with which, in British culture, we are especially poor at engaging. The film foregrounds my own melancholy at experiencing this period in my mother’s life and my wish to make meaning of her history. Since she died in 2009 – before the film was edited – the process of completing the film in 2011-12 became also an act of mourning and performs the ways in which memory becomes especially imbued with nostalgia after death, but also after other forms of exile. With reference to the Freudian distinction between melancholy and mourning (Freud 1917, 1915), in retrospect, I believe the construction of a meditation on Lea’s material remnants also became an act of transformation of melancholy into mourning. The creation of a narrative about the other’s life was a way of working through grief, regret and nostalgia.
The film is informed by a long engagement with the work of feminist film-makers, thinkers and writers on identity, women’s history and life stories. My work draws on and contributes to the creative and critical exploration of mother/daughter relationships by Michelle Citron (Daughter Rite, 1984), Su Friedrich and Annette Kuhn (Family Secrets, 1995). Citron’s work and her reflections on it have been especially important as a hinterland because of her imaginative forging of personal and collective histories in Daughter Rite. This work remains a significant point of reference, which precedes and anticipates the boom in first-person media, charted notably by Michael Renov (2004), and unlike many later examples, locates the personal in the political, formally and thematically. In researching ideas for form, I read Poppy (Modjeska, 1990), a book which combines autobiography, biography and family history and uses oral history, fiction and deconstructive textual analysis to collect the ‘evidence’ of a mother’s life.
My film also intersects with the field of memory studies, which has influenced my thinking about the form the film could take/has taken: as Annette Kuhn suggests, ‘memory work makes it possible to explore connections between “public” historical events, structures of feeling, family dramas, relations of class, national identity and gender, and “personal” memory’ (Kuhn, 2002: 5). While such connections have been made extensively in written texts, there are far fewer documentary film attempts to chart these links reflexively and acknowledge the position of the subject in constructing memory as part of the making. In discussing The Other Country(Duffy 1990) and Poppy (Modjeska, 1990), Susannah Radstone argues ‘nostalgic desire drives each of the texts’ excavation of memory’ (Radstone, 1995: 171). In Poppy, the daughter ‘confronts her longing for the mythical, powerful and mysterious mother’ so that what the ‘quest[s] deliver, finally is a working through of nostalgia’ (179). This analysis informs my approach in the film.
My use of photographs also echoes that of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1981) a text prompted by a family image of his dead mother taken when she was a girl where we read ‘the multiple and mutual looks through which mother and son are constituted as subjects in relation to each other’ (Hirsch 1997: 5). In my film, the importance of looking and being seen are also highlighted as forms of acknowledgement and of subjection. I include a drawing I did of her at the time of her first breakdown which represents both my look at her but also a desire to be seen by her, for my look to be returned.
Finally, Chantal Ackerman’s work provided a way of seeing distance and the past through capturing the present: she provided a model to avoid archive – by filming scenes of everyday life in Eastern Europe she discovers the legacy of communism (D’Est, 1993); in News from Home (1977) letters from a faraway mother are heard over long takes of New York. Her examination of post-memory in the mother-daughter bond in works such as Walking Next to One’s Shoelaces Inside an Empty Fridge (2007) provided an invaluable framework for my focus on the impact of the mother’s history on the daughter (see Anderson, 2010).
Since my own adolescence was marked my mother’s breakdown and diagnosis as schizophrenic, the fragmented narrative of the film is intended to suggest how when I evoke my mother’s traumas and losses I am also, or actually, evoking my own sense of abandonment as a young girl when I became my mother’s carer. This method recalls what Melanie Klein describes as ‘projective identification’ in which aspects not acknowledged in the self are attributed to the other. It may also involve incorporation in which aspects of the other are taken into or encrypted into the self’ (cited in Crownshaw, 2009: 87). This identification was both conscious and unconscious in the making of the film and is reinforced through various methods: through the juxtaposition of narration about my mother’s life with my own recollections, for instance, of my mother from my childhood, for instance when I recall waking up and seeing her looking down at me blankly; the fragmented temporal structure highlights the ways in which my construction of Lea’s story is filtered through different layers of memory, associations and imaginings. Echoes across the generations are suggested through third person narration in a new voice where we are not sure who is speaking – is it the mother or the daughter? Which mother? Which daughter? – suggesting both projection but also common experiences: travel, escape, friendship and separation. The third person narration also evokes the difficulties mother and daughter experience in giving each other recognition and in not being able to see or listen to one another because of their own pressing needs and desires.
On the Border builds on my previous work where I experimented with biography such as Playing A Part (2005). This was not just a portrait of a single person but of two people whose lives and work were very much defined in and through each other – Claude Cahun, and her stepsister, lover and collaborator, Suzanne Malherbe, alias Marcel Moore. The subject of how identities are formed and lived in relation to others both in the family and through wider cultural and social formations has been a constant theme in my work both in film and writing (Thynne 2011, 2010a, 2010b, 1995).
My presentation of the empty space of my mother’s flat suggests both her loneliness and mine at her absence and foregrounds the domestic sphere which was the scene of much of her life after marriage in the 1950s. Like many women of her generation her isolation in the home contrasted with some of the adventures of her youth, and the life of action of her father. I focus on the things (photographs, letters, objects) which remain from a life and foreground these as much for what they cannot reveal as for what they can. Mariane Hirsch points out the violence done to the family, through its dislocation in war time may obscure the tensions and power imbalances within the family itself (Hirsch 1997). In the use of family photographs, I draw on the work of feminist photographers, such as Jo Spence (1986), but utilize the potential of the moving image to disrupt and defamiliarize such images and query the representation they seek to give of romance and a united group. The slow pans across the family photographs, especially from the 1950s and 60s, allow for detailed scrutiny of poses, gestures and the relation of figures in space and narrative juxtapositions question their status as a record of the relationships they appear to document.
I am concerned to represent both the unconscious of biography and the biography of the unconscious i.e. to suggest the mechanisms of identification and projection, which occur in life story-telling, but also to include aspects of the unconscious. Freud and Breuer (1895) discuss how inadmissible memories return, how old events are repeated and transformed. Such transformations involve the transgression of spatial and temporal boundaries. In my mother’s case, the past returned in the form of hallucinations and dreams especially towards the end of her life. Her reminiscences sometimes take a disturbing form, one which cannot be easily inserted into a clear narrative of events and which interrupt, for instance, the apparently more lucid recollections of my uncle. Like many of her utterances, I can only guess what is really being referred to, and like my own selection of stories here, it may not of course only be to the events to which they ostensibly refer. It is often not possible to speak of trauma transparently.
With respect to the structuring of the film its rough division into two parts was not entirely conscious but emerged, as is necessarily the case in documentary production, through my encounter with the material I could access to create the film. The discovery of previously unseen letters from Paavo, my grandfather (who I never knew), from The Front to my mother as a girl of eleven prompts the story of the family’s evacuation and Paavo’s death in action. In the process of editing and viewing the film I realized that in the film this story is also a metaphor for feelings about my mother’s death, which happened after the filming of my journey to Russia but which I could not represent directly. The relating of Paavo’s last battle, through his well-documented final hours becomes a screen and a channel for later grievings.
The emergence of meaning from the work both for others and myself is an iterative process, which cannot fully be accounted for in terms of intentions, as I have suggested above. I trust that the work will provide a suggestive way of thinking about further experimentations in feminist life history, particularly where these attempt to locate personal experience in relation to a broader historical canvas and to chart the unconscious dimensions of ‘biography’. The dynamics of relations between film-makers and their subjects in terms of projection and identification, is an under-researched topic and the use of psychoanalytic approaches in criticism and making is a fruitful one for further work, as is more cross-fertilization between oral history practice in the analysis of life stories and documentary production.
The work was funded partly by personal means and with support from the School of Media, Film and Music, Sussex University.
The film was completed in August 2012 and is currently under consideration at festivals.
Papers on the research and development of the film have been presented at the following conferences:
Journal of Media Practice symposium, Leeds University, 20 June 2008
‘Performances of Memory in the Arts’, Radboud University, Nijmegen, 28 -29 May 2010
‘Family Ties: Recollection and Representation’, Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London, 9 March 2012
Initial presentations have been at:
‘Grievings’, International Conference of the Institute of English Cultures and Literatures, University of Silesia in Katowice, Ustron, Poland, 20-23 September 2012
‘Methods Lab’, Goldsmiths College, London, 1 November 2012
‘Tracing Ancestral Homelands: Family, Landscape and Memory’, Richmond American International University, London, 3 November 2012
‘Private and Public Memories’, 4th international symposium of the Finnish Oral History Network, Helsinki, 29–30 November 2012
Akerman, Chantal (1977) News from Home France, Belgium.
Akerman, Chantal (1993) D’Est/From the East Belgium.
Akerman, Chantal (2007) Walking Next to One’s Shoelaces Inside an Empty Fridge installation, Marion Goodman Gallery New York, 2005; Jewish Museum Berlin, 2007.
Anderson, Melissa (2010) ‘Her Brilliant Decade: Chantal Akerman on New York, mother-daughter bonds, and her ’70s classics, http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/her-brilliant-decade-20100119 [accessed 19 November 2012].
Barthes, Roland (1981) Camera Lucida New York: Hill and Wang (first published as La Chambre Claire, 1980).
Citron, Michelle (1984) Daughter Rite USA.
Crownshaw, Richard (2009) ‘The limits of transference’ in Erll, Astrid and Rigney, Ann (eds) Mediation, Remediation, and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory, Berlin: DeGruyter.
Duffy, Carol Ann (1990) The Other Country Dublin: Anvil (re-published by Picador, 2010).
Freud, Sigmund and Breuer, Josef (1895) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 2: (1893-1895), Studies on Hysteria, republished London: Vintage 2001.
Freud, Sigmund, (1917,1915) ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 14 The Hogarth Press: London.
Friedrich, Su (1984) The Ties That Bind, USA.
Hirsch, Marianne (1997) Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Post-memory Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, Annette (2002) (2nd edition) Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, London: Verso.
Modjeska, Drusilla (1990) Poppy London: Serpent’s Tail.
Radstone, Susannah (2006) ‘Lives Made, Not Found’, review of Elusive Subjects: Biography as Metafiction by Susanna Scarparo, European Journal of Women’s Studies 13 (4).
Radstone, Susannah (1995) ’Remembering Ourselves: Memory, Writing and the Female Self’, in Florence, P. and Reynolds, Dee (eds) Feminist Subjects, Multi-Media Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Renov, Michael (2004) The Subject of Documentary Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Spence, Jo (1986) Putting myself in the picture: a political, personal and photographic autobiography London: Camden Press.
Thynne, Lizzie (2011) ‘Ethics, politics and representation in Child of Mine, a television documentary on lesbian parenting’, Jump Cut, no. 53.
______ (2010a) Constructing a film biography of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’ in Vincent Broqua and Guillaume Marché (eds) L’epuisement du biographique? Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
______ (2010b) ‘Indirect Action: politics and the subversion of identity in Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s resistance to the Occupation of Jersey’ Papers of Surrealism, 8, Spring.
______ (1995) ‘The Space Between: Mothers and Daughters in Anne Trister’ in Tamsin Wilton (ed.) Immortal, Invisible: Lesbians and the Moving Image and in Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey (eds) Romance Re-visitedLawrence and Wishart.
The following reviews refer to the original research statement which has been edited in response.
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
Lizzie Thynne’s On The Border is a complex multi-layered work portraying place, absence and subjectivities. The use of autobiography through her voice-over and presence in the film enables her to explore memory, identity and gender framed by a wider history. It is an exploration of trauma and loss across several generations, including her own unresolved trauma relating to her mother Lea’s death and physical abuse by her British father, Geoffrey. The representation of memory is constructed through letters, still photographs, interviews and images that are set in present-day locations in Finland and England. The narrative centres around a journey by Thynne through the Finnish part of Karelia, a disputed territory on the Eastern Finnish border with Russia, where Lea originated. The negotiation of the geography of Karelia serves as a central metaphor for the blurring of boundaries between past and present, mother and grandmother and the filmmaker finding her way through emotional space. At times however, the number of different characters and voices and lack of narrative signposts makes the film rather confusing. Tellingly, the border between Russia and Finland is revealed by Thynne’s camera to contain nothing but endless forest stretching to the horizon, punctuated by small wooden houses, almost empty of human inhabitants. On the Border utilises a fragmented narrative but it is only towards the end of the film that it may be read as an attempt by Thynne to master memories of difficult past events that have led to her own contested identity. As the camera wanders around an empty bedroom that may belong to Lea and over empty landscape and old photographs, it seems to be searching for an answer to unarticulated questions, but finds only traces. Matter-of-fact voices read letters that describe the banal minutae of daily lives alongside brief declarations of love. These letters, says Thynne’s voice, are written by members of her family: her grandfather, Paavo to Lea when she was 11 and Geoffrey to Lea. Towards the end of the film under the weight of memories the tone of the film changes towards a sensation of melancholy as Thynne’s voice describes her dreams of dread, of “a blank face looming over me”.
In lengthy written on-screen texts, reminiscent of more evidence-based documentaries, voice-overs and a sequence in the Salpa Line Museum of fortifications, On The Border explores the events of WWII in Karelia. However, it temporally subverts the norm of the evidence-based text by providing its account of the war in non-chronological order, moving backwards and forwards in time, creating a disruption to the ordering of events in the mind of the spectator. The film changes direction when Thynne is filmed in an encounter with an elderly woman in Helsinki on the anniversary of the first day of the Winter War 62 years earlier. That was when the Russians bombed Helskini for the first time. The woman reveals that the weather was exactly the same grey on that day and says repeatedly “I still remember”. Thynne’s voice immediately remarks that Lea was taken to hospital in 2007 and that Lea was ‘confused’ saying Geoffrey had wanted to throw her away. Thynne reveals that Geoffrey, whose letters to Lea were full of loving detail, had hit Lea from the time Thynne was 5 years old. She does not elaborate further, but instead describes another melancholy dream, an empty house where she had not been before but was familiar to her. The effect is disconcerting and intriguing but the film does not pursue it as though the weight of memories are too much for Thynne to bear and the film concludes with a boy, perhaps another relative, swimming in a lake in Finland. On The Border enables the spectator to ponder the difficulties of representing subjective memories, offering a rich and original insight into the nature of displacement and exile in the aftermath of war and its lasting effects on a single family.
Thynne’s scholarship is well-researched and articulate and her references well selected. She has a firm understanding of her area of research and her research questions are explored well in her filmic practice and the statement.
Review 2: Accept work and statement with no alterations
This is a well-shot and edited film that cleverly interweaves a wide range of kinds of footage and time periods into an evocative and coherent whole – without feeling too forced or expository (for instance the final image of the swimming boy who is not a ‘significant’ character in the film, yet is very powerful in that context). The mother’s voice comes through strongly in the remarkable (voice-only) interview that is used very effectively and movingly with the family archive stills. The occasional eruptions of more conventional ‘actuality’ (e.g. the vox pop interview with the 80 year old woman remembering the Russian bombing after the lovely shots on the station) work well to anchor the more experimental sequences into the history and present of Finland. The themes of the difficult mother/daughter relationship – inflected by mental illness – and the traumatic legacies of the Second World War are both relatively new subject areas in autobiographical film, and the innovative treatment of them in this work is certainly original.
Perhaps the most original element of the film is its ‘multi-vocality’ – the sense of different voices from different times, Lizzie and her mother’s, her aunt’s and cousin’s, that are interweaved in the film. This layering quality becomes clear from early on when the film cuts from a moving to-camera video-diary shot of grieving Lizzie to her in more reflective voice over. (I was sorry that the grieving diary-esque voice didn’t return).
Occasionally the pace and tight-packed quality of the film seems too fast for me, not allowing the sensuousness of the images to breathe: for instance, in the sequence with her Aunt’s sculptures in the garden, which are shown accompanied by a lot of voice-over, which works well with them, but doesn’t pause or stop for long enough for us to absorb the beauty of the sculpture’s and integrate their meaning into what we have just heard.
– the quality of the Statement (overall organisation of the argument, theoretical and artistic context etc);
This is an exemplary piece of self-reflexive writing about filmmaking practice, in my view. Lucid, critically informed in all the appropriate areas for the work, with appropriate and useful references to both written work and other films/creative works, it enables the film to be located in a number of areas of ‘academic’/intellectual enquiry, including autobiographical documentary, memory work, feminist auto/biography, and trauma studies.
It also illuminates and enriches the experience of watching the film itself. The first time I saw the film I was moved by the sequences in her mother’s deserted house, without knowing quite why. The connection with the work of Hirsch and Spence in her discussion in the ‘Methods’ section made the significance of the house, her artefacts and family photos more resonant for me.
I attended one of the ‘Initial Presentations’ she cites of the work, and it was clear from the subsequent discussion in that context that the film works well to raise the themes and have the impact that the filmmaker hoped for and intended.